After Lmnop told me she was writing her article on OCD in sports it set me to thinking. We’ll be doing more writing on mental health in sports, and while we discussed her article, the one person who continually popped into my mind was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. He was a basketball player in the NBA throughout most of the 90’s, had one of the sweetest shots of all time, and, in 1996, was in the middle of a colossal controversy for refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem, all while living with Tourette’s syndrome.
Born Chris Jackson in Gulfport, Mississippi, Abdul-Rauf enjoyed success wherever he went. I had been aware of who he was since he entered the league out of college. He set records while playing for LSU and was the number 3 pick in the 1991 draft by the Denver Nuggets. He was a highly regarded talent during the height of my basketball playing and obsessing years as well as a fascinating story. After the national anthem controversy he was traded to my favourite team, the Sacramento Kings, where he played for 2 more years, and it was during this time that I was able to watch him play and read a bit more about the man.
In doing research for this article, I found that information was not easy to come by. The best information regarding his Tourette’s syndrome came from an archived piece in sports illustrated that I feel certain I read as a teen. I’ve decided to provide a link at the bottom of the page, as I can’t say more about it than the article already does. It paints an intense picture. Needless to say, Tourette’s has impacted his life, controlled it, even, but the desire for perfection that the syndrome imposes on him also enabled him hone his craft like few others.
It was in 1993 that Abdul-Rauf changed his name from Chris Jackson, after a two year long conversion process. He had read Malcolm X’s biography and, having grown up impoverished in Mississippi, the ideas resonated with him. He wasn’t the first or the most famous convert, by any means. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for example, used his fame to sell beer and fight Bruce Lee and we all know the story of Muhammad Ali. I can’t, however, recall another athlete using Islam to take a stand as he did. And what a stand it was.
It began at the start of the 95-96 season. Abdul-Rauf chose not to stand for the national anthem in November after doing some soul searching in the offseason. Instead of lining up near the benches with the rest of the players, Abdul-Rauf would remain in the tunnel leading out from the locker room. After the conclusion of the ceremony he would join the team for the start of the game.
“It is my understanding that 100 percent honesty and sincerity is the requirement for participation in the national anthem. As such, I chose not to disrespect anyone and remain in the locker room or hallway area while the anthem was being played.”
And all was fine in Denver. It was sometime in early March of 1996, the final quarter of the NBA season, that sports talk radio picked up on his behavior and, predictably, the feedback was negative. The league had to respond. They issued a statement that he needed to comply with the participation in the national anthem to fulfill his contract (in other words, get paid) and that it was not a religious issue, but a procedural one. The suspension was indefinite.
A compromise was shortly reached and the league reinstated Abdul-Rauf. He would stand in line with the rest of his team but with his head lowered in prayer. He only missed one game, but the damage had been done. Reaction around the nation was swift and vitriolic. His statement that the flag was a “symbol of oppression and tyranny” was the object of the majority of scorn. “Treason,” commented one retired veteran. Signs in basketball arenas around the country asked him to please return to his home country. Mississippi, despite Alabama’s objections, is still in the United States. He received an endless stream of hate mail. ‘Go back to Africa’ was a common theme. Death threats another. Others asked how he could be oppressed while making $2.3 million dollars per year. Two disc jockeys from a local radio station, in a publicity stunt, burst into a local mosque during prayer time and played “The Star Spangled Banner” on a trumpet. Most players refused to back him, including some famous Muslims, most notably Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon even went so far as to imply that Abdul-Rauf did not fully understand Islam. Olajuwon, it should be noted, was born into the faith.
In the ensuing offseason he was jettisoned from the Denver Nuggets. He landed in Sacramento, traded to my team of choice, without garnering much in return. He played for two years as a role-player, one of them marred by injuries, without ever regaining the star status he was on the verge of achieving in Denver. The controversy was a footnote at this point, for me at least, and I focused more on what he brought to the team. His tics and twitches were only noticeable as the action moved away from him. With the ball in his hand, or on the ball on defense, they all but vanished. I found him fascinating to watch but, alas, when his contract expired, he left town and I forgot about him.
He continues to play to this day. His career history reads like a travel writer for Lonely Planet. From Denver to California. On to Turkey. Vancouver, for a brief revival in the NBA. Then Russia, followed by Italy and Greece. Saudi Arabia and, finally, Japan, where he still plays today. Recent interviews claim he still has the desire to play and as long as he can physically keep up with the demand, he’ll continue to do so. Aged 42, one can only guess for how much longer his body will hold up. At no point does he come across as bitter or claim any regrets.
There is no doubt that the anthem controversy marked his career. Whether or not he would have ever lived up to the potential of his lofty draft selection is a moot point at this juncture. His talent was undeniable. I can’t help wonder what might have happened had he played for another team during his act of conscious. Denver is less than 10% black and the state of Colorado is around 1% Muslim according to my sources (Wikipedia, shhh….). What if he would have played in New York, the multi-cultural metropolis? Or Oakland, a historically black city with left-leaning tendencies. Somewhere in the South? Would talk radio have even cared about it in LA? What-ifs… He just as well could have played in Orlando, the home of Disneyworld, and been paired with Mickey Mouse in television ads hocking rental cars to German tourists. Such is life for many NBA players nowadays. Refreshingly, every so often, one of them has a conscious.
Link to the SI article:
The conversion of Chris Jackson